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Bucs leave A-Sun with more tennis titles

Kelly Hodge • Apr 25, 2014 at 8:45 PM

All the other Atlantic Sun Conference tennis coaches and their players should have lined up, smiled and collectively waved goodbye as the contingent from East Tennessee State departed the UNF Tennis Complex in Jacksonville, Fla., late Sunday.

They surely were glad to see the Bucs go.

Yaser Zaatini’s teams walked away with an emphatic sweep in their A-Sun swan song, with the men claiming an eighth straight tournament championship and the women winning their fourth title. The scores were 4-0 in each final — smooth sailing to yet another NCAA berth.

For Zaatini, the ETSU director of tennis and men’s head coach, the finish was twice as nice but still a bit bittersweet. The Bucs will rejoin the Southern Conference next year.

“We’ve really seen a lot of growth in A-Sun tennis since we’ve been in it,” Zaatini said Monday as he made his way home, “and a lot of programs have really gotten better, to a large degree because of us. We’ve been pushed more every year, so it’s nice to leave the way we did.”

The women’s title was unexpected. North Florida, the two-time defending champion, had beaten everyone in the league during the regular season, including a 4-0 whitewash of ETSU in late March.

But the Lady Ospreys were stunned on their home courts by Stetson in the semifinals, and coach Travis Sandlant’s second-seeded team was rejuvenated.

The Lady Bucs won the doubles point, and all three singles victories were in straight sets in the final. Sophomore Lyn Yee Choo led the onslaught with a 6-1, 6-4 romp over Diana Bukajeva, the reigning player of the year, and was named tournament MVP.

Zaatini likened Choo’s style of play to a “machine gun.”

“Sometimes she shoots without aiming,” he said. “If she’s shooting straight, look out.”

The Lady Bucs (14-8) also got singles victories from Ana Gerbasi and Sofia Espana to put an end to the competition. They had finished runner-up to North Florida the last two years, and were derailed earlier this season by eligibility issues and injuries.

“Being so close the last few years, we didn’t want to let another opportunity slip away,” said Sandlant. “I think this is a testament to the girls more than anything. Their willingness to be in our system, work hard and have the desire to take the next step helped them come through in the big matches when it counted most.”

The ETSU men, meanwhile, were in typical form.

How dominant have they been in their nine years in the Atlantic Sun? They leave with a conference record, including tournament matches, of 94-4.

The Bucs lost to Belmont in the semifinals in 2006, and never lost again in the postseason.

This spring, with just one senior and five newcomers on the roster — and without Rogerio Robeiro, their top player, who is still rehabbing from knee surgery last fall -- they pitched shutouts in seven of their nine matches. In fact, they dropped three just points to A-Sun opponents all season.

On a rainy weekend in Jacksonville, the Bucs would not be tested. They defeated Stetson 4-0, and then did the same to second-seeded North Florida in their first meeting of the season. (The regular-season match, on the same courts, was rained out.)

Ismael Merino, one of four freshmen in the lineup, was named MVP. Roger Ordeig, the lone senior, clinched the championship with his No. 6 singles victory.

“Our guys were completely ready to take it on,” said Zaatini, whose team improved to 14-8 with its 11th straight victory.

The coach was a two-time All-American at ETSU in the early 1990s and always has a sense of history with the program. This year is no different.

“We have a lot of young guys, and we have to instill in them that every time we step onto the courts we’re building tradition,” said Zaatini. “We all have dreams of taking the program to the next level. Once you get a young team to buy into that development, you start to see something a little bit special.”

Zaatini gives much of the credit for ETSU’s recent success to Sandlant and Ricky Rojas, who is an assistant coach with the men’s team. Both are former players and “integral parts of the program for years,” said Zaatini.

“It’s a little unprofessional from my side to call either of them assistants,” he said. “Travis is associate head coach and has done a great job with the women. Ricky is still in graduate school but has also done a great job. Either of those guys could be head coaches.

“They’re the motor that moves this engine forward.”

The NCAA tournament draw for both the men and women will be April 29.

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